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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.2 (2005) 345-374

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Conversing with Ghosts

Jedwabne, Żydokomuna, and Totalitarianism

Dept. of History
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405 USA
Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. 261 pp. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001 (paper, New York: Penguin, 2002). ISBN 0691086672. $22.95. English edition of: Jan T. Gross, Sąsiedzi: Historia zagłady żydowskiego miasteczka. 157 pp. Sejny: Pogranicze, 2000. ISBN 8386872136.
Jan T. Gross, Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland's Western Ukraine and Western Belarus. xxiv + 396 pp. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (1st ed., 1988; 2nd ed., 2002). ISBN 0691096031. $22.95 (paper).
Jan T. Gross, Upiorna dekada: Trzy eseje na temat wzajemnych relacji między Żydami, Polakami, Niemcami i komunistami w latach 1939–1948 [The Ghastly Decade: Three Essays on the Theme of Relations among Jews, Poles, Germans, and Communists in 1939–48]. 119 pp. Cracow: Universitas, 1998 (repr. 2001). ISBN 8370528708.
Jan T. Gross, Wokół Sąsiadów: Polemiki i wyjaśnienia [Around Neighbors: Debates and Explanations]. 121 pp. Sejny: Pogranicze, 2003. ISBN 8386872489.
Paweł Machcewicz and Krzystof Persak, eds., Wokół Jedwabnego [Around Jedwabne], vol. 1: Studia [Studies]; vol. 2: Dokumenty [Documents]. 526 pp. and 1,035 pp. Warsaw: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, 2002. ISBN 8389078082. [End Page 345]
Antony Polonsky and Joanna Michlic, eds., The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland. 489 pp. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003. ISBN 0691116431. $55.00 (cloth). ISBN 0691113068. $19.95 (paper).

On 10 July 1941, just after the withdrawal of the Red Army and the arrival of the Wehrmacht, the Polish townspeople of Jedwabne murdered their Jewish neighbors. From the sidelines those Germans who were present looked on and took photographs. The final massacre was preceded by days of stonings and lynchings of individual Jews. Earlier that day, several dozen of the strongest Jewish men were forced to dismantle the Lenin statue, carry it to the cemetery, and dig a grave for its burial. The bodies of the men were thrown into the same grave. Later that day, local Poles from Jedwabne and nearby villages forced the town's several hundred to a thousand remaining Jews from their homes and into the town square, herded them into a barn, and set the barn on fire. In this way Jedwabne Jewry came to an end.

Six and a half years later, the Central Committee of Polish Jews received a letter from Montevideo, Uruguay. Its author was Całka Migdał, a Jedwabne Jew who had left Poland ten years earlier, but whose mother, sister, and other family members had remained there. "We've had news, " Midgał wrote, "that they perished not by German but by Polish hands." In February 1948, the district court in Łomża (a larger town close to Jedwabne) began an investigation on the basis of the so-called "August Decree" issued by the communist-dominated Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN), which called for criminal charges against Nazi collaborators. Following a rather lax investigation, there was a two-day trial of 22 men, most of whom were born in Jedwabne, none of whom had had a higher education, and 3 of whom admitted to illiteracy.1 During interrogations by the Security Office (UB), the accused confessed to varying degrees of involvement, in the course of which they related sundry gruesome anecdotes. At the trial itself, however, all the defendants claimed to have been beaten during interrogation, recanted their testimonies, and pled innocent. Twelve were found guilty, and ten were acquitted.2

In May 2000, Jan Tomasz Gross published, in Polish, a short book titled Sąsiedzi: Historia zagłady żydowskiego miasteczka, telling the story of the Jedwabne massacre.3 This was, Gross noted, a collective murder in the double [End Page 346] sense: with respect to the victims as well as the perpetrators. Everyone who was present in the town that day was either a witness to or...


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